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Title: The Thing On the Roof

Author: Robert E. Howard

* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *

eBook No.: 0608011.txst

Language: English

Date first posted: October 2006

Date most recently updated: October 2006



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The Thing On the Roof

Robert E. Howard







_They lumber through the night_

_With their elephantine tread;_

_I shudder in affright_

_As I cower in my bed._

_They lift colossal wings_

_On the high gable roofs_

_Which tremble to the trample_

_Of their mastodonic hoofs._

  --Justin Geoffrey: _Out of the Old Land._





Let me begin by saying that I was surprized when Tussmann called

on me. We had never been close friends; the man's mercenary instincts

repelled me; and since our bitter controversy of three years before,

when he attempted to discredit my _Evidences of Nahua Culture in

Yucatan_, which was the result of years of careful research, our

relations had been anything but cordial. However, I received him and

found his manner hasty and abrupt, but rather abstracted, as if his

dislike for me had been thrust aside in some driving passion that had

hold of him.



His errand was quickly stated. He wished my aid in obtaining a

volume in the first edition of Von Junzt's _Nameless Cults_--the

edition known as the Black Book, not from its color, but because of

its dark contents. He might almost as well have asked me for the

original Greek translation of the _Necronomicon_. Though since my

return from Yucatan I had devoted practically all my time to my

avocation of book collecting, I had not stumbled onto any hint that

the book in the Dusseldorf edition was still in existence.



A word as to this rare work. Its extreme ambiguity in spots,

coupled with its incredible subject matter, has caused it long to be

regarded as the ravings of a maniac and the author was damned with the

brand of insanity. But the fact remains that much of his assertions

are unanswerable, and that he spent the full forty-five years of his

life prying into strange places and discovering secret and abysmal

things. Not a great many volumes were printed in the first edition and

many of these were burned by their frightened owners when Von Junzt

was found strangled in a mysterious manner, in his barred and bolted

chamber one night in 1840, six months after he had returned from a

mysterious journey to Mongolia.



Five years later a London printer, one Bridewall, pirated the

work, and issued a cheap translation for sensational effect, full of

grotesque woodcuts, and riddled with misspellings, faulty translations

and the usual errors of a cheap and unscholarly printing. This still

further discredited the original work, and publishers and public

forgot about the book until 1909 when the Golden Goblin Press of New

York brought out an edition.



Their production was so carefully expurgated that fully a fourth

of the original matter was cut out; the book was handsomely bound and

decorated with the exquisite and weirdly imaginative illustrations of

Diego Vasquez. The edition was intended for popular consumption but

the artistic instinct of the publishers defeated that end, since the

cost of issuing the book was so great that they were forced to cite it

at a prohibitive price.



I was explaining all this to Tussmann when he interrupted

brusquely to say that he was not utterly ignorant in such matters. One

of the Golden Goblin books ornamented his library, he said, and it was

in it that he found a certain line which aroused his interest. If I

could procure him a copy of the original 1839 edition, he would make

it worth my while; knowing, he added, that it would be useless to

offer me money, he would, instead, in return for my trouble on his

behalf, make a full retraction of his former accusations in regard to

my Yucatan researches, and offer a complete apology in _The Scientific

News_.



I will admit that I was astounded at this, and realized that if

the matter meant so much to Tussmann that he was willing to make such

concessions, it must indeed be of the utmost importance. I answered

that I considered that I had sufficiently refuted his charges in the

eyes of the world and had no desire to put him in a humiliating

position, but that I would make the utmost efforts to procure him what

he wanted.



He thanked me abruptly and took his leave, saying rather vaguely

that he hoped to find a complete exposition of something in the Black

Book which had evidently been slighted in the later edition.



I set to work, writing letters to friends, colleagues and book

dealers all over the world, and soon discovered that I had assumed a

task of no small magnitude. Three months elapsed before my efforts

were crowned with success, but at last, through the aid of Professor

James Clement of Richmond, Virginia, I was able to obtain what I

wished.



I notified Tussmann and he came to London by the next train. His

eyes burned avidly as he gazed at the thick, dusty volume with its

heavy leather covers and rusty iron hasps, and his fingers quivered

with eagerness as he thumbed the time-yellowed pages.



And when he cried out fiercely and smashed his clenched fist down

on the table I knew that he had found what he hunted.



"Listen!" he commanded, and he read to me a passage that spoke of

an old, old temple in a Honduras jungle where a strange god was

worshipped by an ancient tribe which became extinct before the coming

of the Spaniards. And Tussmann read aloud of the mummy that had been,

in life, the last high priest of that vanished people, and which now

lay in a chamber hewn in the solid rock of the cliff against which the

temple was built. About that mummy's withered neck was a copper chain,

and on that chain a great red jewel carved in the form of a toad. This

jewel was a key, Von Junzt went on to say, to the treasure of the

temple which lay hidden in a subterranean crypt far below the temple's

altar.



Tussmann's eyes blazed.



"I have seen that temple! I have stood before the altar. I have

seen the sealed-up entrance of the chamber in which, the natives say,

lies the mummy of the priest. It is a very curious temple, no more

like the ruins of the prehistoric Indians than it is like the

buildings of the modern Latin-Americans. The Indians in the vicinity

disclaim any former connection with the place; they say that the

people who built that temple were a different race from themselves,

and were there when their own ancestors came into the country. I

believe it to be a remnant of some long-vanished civilization which

began to decay thousands of years before the Spaniards came.



"I would have liked to have broken into the sealed-up chamber, but

I had neither the time nor the tools for the task. I was hurrying to

the coast, having been wounded by an accidental gunshot in the foot,

and I stumbled onto the place purely by chance.



"I have been planning to have another look at it, but

circumstances have prevented--now I intend to let nothing stand in my

way! By chance I came upon a passage in the Golden Goblin edition of

this book, describing the temple. But that was all; the mummy was only

briefly mentioned. Interested, I obtained one of Bridewall's

translations but ran up against a blank wall of baffling blunders. By

some irritating mischance the translator had even mistaken the

location of the Temple of the Toad, as Von Junzt calls it, and has it

in Guatemala instead of Honduras. The general description is faulty,

the jewel is mentioned and the fact that it is a 'key'. But a key to

what, Bridewall's book does not state. I now felt that I was on the

track of a real discovery, unless Von Junzt was, as many maintain, a

madman. But that the man was actually in Honduras at one time is well

attested, and no one could so vividly describe the temple--as he does

in the Black Book--unless he had seen it himself. How he learned of

the jewel is more than I can say. The Indians who told me of the mummy

said nothing of any jewel. I can only believe that Von Junzt found his

way into the sealed crypt somehow--the man had uncanny ways of

learning hidden things.



"To the best of my knowledge only one other white man has seen the

Temple of the Toad besides Von Junzt and myself--the Spanish traveler

Juan Gonzales, who made a partial exploration of that country in 1793.

He mentioned, briefly, a curious fane that differed from most Indian

ruins, and spoke skeptically of a legend current among the natives

that there was 'something unusual' hidden under the temple. I feel

certain that he was referring to the Temple of the Toad.



"Tomorrow I sail for Central America. Keep the book; I have no

more use for it. This time I am going fully prepared and I intend to

find what is hidden in that temple, if I have to demolish it. It can

be nothing less than a great store of gold! The Spaniards missed it,

somehow; when they arrived in Central America, the Temple of the Toad

was deserted; they were searching for living Indians from whom torture

could wring gold; not for mummies of lost peoples. But I mean to have

that treasure."



So saying Tussman took his departure. I sat down and opened the

book at the place where he had left off reading, and I sat until

midnight, wrapt in Von Junzt's curious, wild and at times utterly

vague expoundings. And I found pertaining to the Temple of the Toad

certain things which disquieted me so much that the next morning I

attempted to get in touch with Tussmann, only to find that he had

already sailed.



Several months passed and then I received a letter from Tussmann,

asking me to come and spend a few days with him at his estate in

Sussex; he also requested me to bring the Black Book with me.



I arrived at Tussmann's rather isolated estate just after

nightfall. He lived in almost feudal state, his great ivy-grown house

and broad lawns surrounded by high stone walls. As I went up the

hedge-bordered way from the gate to the house, I noted that the place

had not been well kept in its master's absence. Weeds grew rank among

the trees, almost choking out the grass. Among some unkempt bushes

over against the outer wall, I heard what appeared to be a horse or an

ox blundering and lumbering about. I distinctly heard the clink of its

hoof on a stone.



A servant who eyed me suspiciously admitted me and I found

Tussmann pacing to and fro in his study like a caged lion. His giant

frame was leaner, harder than when I had last seen him; his face was

bronzed by a tropic sun. There were more and harsher lines in his

strong face and his eyes burned more intensely than ever. A

smoldering, baffled anger seemed to underlie his manner.



"Well, Tussmann," I greeted him, "what success? Did you find the

gold?"



"I found not an ounce of gold," he growled. "The whole thing was a

hoax--well, not all of it. I broke into the sealed chamber and found

the mummy--"



"And the jewel?" I exclaimed.



He drew something from his pocket and handed it to me.



I gazed curiously at the thing I held. It was a great jewel, clear

and transparent as crystal, but of a sinister crimson, carved, as Von

Junzt had declared, in the shape of a toad. I shuddered involuntarily;

the image was peculiarly repulsive. I turned my attention to the heavy

and curiously wrought copper chain which supported it.



"What are these characters carved on the chain?" I asked

curiously.



"I can not say," Tussmann replied. "I had thought perhaps you

might know. I find a faint resemblance between them and certain partly

defaced hieroglyphics on a monolith known as the Black Stone in the

mountains of Hungary. I have been unable to decipher them."



"Tell me of your trip," I urged, and over our whiskey-and-sodas he

began, as if with a strange reluctance.



"I found the temple again with no great difficulty, though it lies

in a lonely and little-frequented region. The temple is built against

a sheer stone cliff in a deserted valley unknown to maps and

explorers. I would not endeavor to make an estimate of its antiquity,

but it is built of a sort of unusually hard basalt, such as I have

never seen anywhere else, and its extreme weathering suggests

incredible age.



"Most of the columns which form its facade are in ruins, thrusting

up shattered stumps from worn bases, like the scattered and broken

teeth of some grinning hag. The outer walls are crumbling, but the

inner walls and the columns which support such of the roof as remains

intact, seem good for another thousand years, as well as the walls of

the inner chamber.



"The main chamber is a large circular affair with a floor composed

of great squares of stone. In the center stands the altar, merely a

huge, round, curiously carved block of the same material. Directly

behind the altar, in the solid stone cliff which forms the rear wall

of the chamber, is the sealed and hewn-out chamber wherein lay the

mummy of the temple's last priest.



"I broke into the crypt with not too much difficulty and found the

mummy exactly as is stated in the Black Book. Though it was in a

remarkable state of preservation, I was unable to classify it. The

withered features and general contour of the skull suggested certain

degraded and mongrel peoples of Lower Egypt, and I feel certain that

the priest was a member of a race more akin to the Caucasian than the

Indian. Beyond this, I can not make any positive statement.



"But the jewel was there, the chain looped about the dried-up

neck."



From this point Tussmann's narrative became so vague that I had

some difficulty in following him and wondered if the tropic sun had

affected his mind. He had opened a hidden door in the altar somehow

with the jewel--just how, he did not plainly say, and it struck me

that he did not clearly understand himself the action of the jewel-

key. But the opening of the secret door had had a bad effect on the

hardy rogues in his employ. They had refused point-blank to follow him

through that gaping black opening which had appeared so mysteriously

when the gem was touched to the altar.



Tussmann entered alone with his pistol and electric torch, finding

a narrow stone stair that wound down into the bowels of the earth,

apparently. He followed this and presently came into a broad corridor,

in the blackness of which his tiny beam of light was almost engulfed.

As he told this he spoke with strange annoyance of a toad which hopped

ahead of him, just beyond the circle of light, all the time he was

below ground.



Making his way along dank tunnels and stairways that were wells of

solid blackness, he at last came to a heavy door fantastically carved,

which he felt must be the crypt wherein was secreted the gold of the

ancient worshippers. He pressed the toad-jewel against it at several

places and finally the door gaped wide.



"And the treasure?" I broke in eagerly.



He laughed in savage self-mockery.



"There was no gold there, no precious gems--nothing"--he

hesitated--"nothing that I could bring away."



Again his tale lapsed into vagueness. I gathered that he had left

the temple rather hurriedly without searching any further for the

supposed treasure. He had intended bringing the mummy away with him,

he said, to present to some museum, but when he came up out of the

pits, it could not be found and he believed that his men, in

superstitious aversion to having such a companion on their road to the

coast, had thrown it into some well or cavern.



"And so," he concluded, "I am in England again no richer than when

I left."



"You have the jewel," I reminded him. "Surely it is valuable."



He eyed it without favor, but with a sort of fierce avidness

almost obsessional.



"Would you say that it is a ruby?" he asked.



I shook my head. "I am unable to classify it."



"And I. But let me see the book."



He slowly turned the heavy pages, his lips moving as he read.

Sometimes he shook his head as if puzzled, and I noticed him dwell

long over a certain line.



"This man dipped so deeply into forbidden things," said he, "I can

not wonder that his fate was so strange and mysterious. He must have

had some foreboding of his end--here he warns men not to disturb

sleeping things."



Tussmann seemed lost in thought for some moments.



"Aye, sleeping things," he muttered, "that seem dead, but only lie

waiting for some blind fool to awake them--I should have read further

in the Black Book--and I should have shut the door when I left the

crypt--but I have the key and I'll keep it in spite of Hell."



He roused himself from his reveries and was about to speak when he

stopped short. From somewhere upstairs had come a peculiar sound.



"What was that?" he glared at me. I shook my head and he ran to

the door and shouted for a servant. The man entered a few moments

later and he was rather pale.



"You were upstairs?" growled Tussmann.



"Yes, sir."



"Did you hear anything?" asked Tussmann harshly and in a manner

almost threatening and accusing.



"I did, sir," the man answered with a puzzled look on his face.



"What did you hear?" The question was fairly snarled.



"Well, sir," the man laughed apologetically, "you'll say I'm a bit

off, I fear, but to tell you the truth, sir, it sounded like a horse

stamping around on the roof!"



A blaze of absolute madness leaped into Tussmann's eyes.



"You fool!" he screamed. "Get out of here!" The man shrank back in

amazement and Tussmann snatched up the gleaming toad-carved jewel.



"I've been a fool!" he raved. "I didn't read far enough--and I

should have shut the door--but by heaven, the key is mine and I'll

keep it in spite of man or devil."



And with these strange words he turned and fled upstairs. A moment

later his door slammed heavily and a servant, knocking timidly,

brought forth only a blasphemous order to retire and a luridly worded

threat to shoot anyone who tried to obtain entrance into the room.



Had it not been so late I would have left the house, for I was

certain that Tussmann was stark mad. As it was, I retired to the room

a frightened servant showed me, but I did not go to bed. I opened the

pages of the Black Book at the place where Tussmann had been reading.



This much was evident, unless the man was utterly insane: he had

stumbled upon something unexpected in the Temple of the Toad.

Something unnatural about the opening of the altar door had frightened

his men, and in the subterraneous crypt Tussmann had found _something_

that he had not thought to find. And I believed that he had been

followed from Central America, and that the reason for his persecution

was the jewel he called the Key.



Seeking some clue in Von Junzt's volume, I read again of the

Temple of the Toad, of the strange pre-Indian people who worshipped

there, and of the huge, tittering, tentacled, hoofed monstrosity that

they worshipped.



Tussmann had said that he had not read far enough when he had

first seen the book. Puzzling over this cryptic phrase I came upon the

line he had pored over--marked by his thumb nail. It seemed to me to

be another of Von Junzt's many ambiguities, for it merely stated that

a temple's god was the temple's treasure. Then the dark implication of

the hint struck me and cold sweat beaded my forehead.



The Key to the Treasure! And the temple's treasure was the

temple's god! And sleeping Things might awaken on the opening of their

prison door! I sprang up, unnerved by the intolerable suggestion, and

at that moment something crashed in the stillness and the death-scream

of a human being burst upon my ears.



In an instant I was out of the room, and as I dashed up the stairs

I heard sounds that have made me doubt my sanity ever since. At

Tussmann's door I halted, essaying with shaking hand to turn the knob.

The door was locked, and as I hesitated I heard from within a hideous

high-pitched tittering and then the disgusting squashy sound as if a

great, jelly-like bulk was being forced through the window. The sound

ceased and I could have sworn I heard a faint swish of gigantic wings.

Then silence.



Gathering my shattered nerves, I broke down the door. A foul and

overpowering stench billowed out like a yellow mist. Gasping in nausea

I entered. The room was in ruins, but nothing was missing except that

crimson toad-carved jewel Tussmann called the Key, and that was never

found. A foul, unspeakable slime smeared the windowsill, and in the

center of the room lay Tussmann, his head crushed and flattened; and

on the red ruin of skull and face, the plain print of an enormous

hoof.







THE END